By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
It’s no news that obesity is a serious national epidemic but it is news that obesity rates among young low-income children are starting to level off and even decrease in some states.
Two organizations focused on community health, Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently released new data visuals showing how obesity rates of 2-to-4-year-old WIC participants have changed since 2010. The acronym WIC stands for “Women, Infants and Children” and it’s a federal nutrition program for low-income mothers and children up to 5 years old.
The new data can be found on the State of Obesity website. The data shows that obesity rates among 2-to-4-year-old WIC participants decreased in 31 states and three territories.
“Lower income families are particularly at risk so seeing improvement in that population is really heartening,” said Richard Hamburg, Trust for America’s Health interim president and CEO, in a recent phone interview.
Pennsylvania wasn’t one of the states to see a decrease among that particular population but the obesity rate remained stable compared to recent years at 12.9 percent. This makes Pennsylvania’s obesity rate among young children WIC participants the 13th lowest out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.
REDUCING OBESITY RATES A REFLECTION OF POLICIES
Hamburg said the stable and decreasing obesity rates is a reflection of policy changes in state and federal programs that are making nutrition and the health of children a priority.
“The WIC program itself now provides nutritious foods, nutrition education and breastfeeding promotion. Just two years ago, the Department of Agriculture finalized changes to the WIC program to further improve nutrition and health for the nation’s low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and young children” he said.
In addition to childhood obesity rates, the State of Obesity website also has visuals displaying how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking which states have policies that intend to prevent obesity in child care settings. According to the CDC’s Early Care and Education State Indicator Report, Pennsylvania has been working for at least six years to address obesity in early care and education settings.
Hamburg said there are several other federal programs besides WIC focusing on preventing or decreasing the rates of kids that are obese or overweight. He said the Head Start children readiness program is revising their standards for the first time in 40 years.
“Those final standards are expected by year’s end and include increased focus on supporting health and well-being,” Hamburg said.
He said the Child and Adult Food Program benefits more than 4 million low-income children. The program aims to improve the diets of children and adults by helping them develop healthy eating habits, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education website.
Hamburg said the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was updated this year to resemble the recommended dietary guidelines for Americans by incorporating whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less added sugars.
“So you’re seeing this pattern,” he said.
Hamburg said recent data is showing progress in reducing the obesity rates among young WIC participants but high obesity rates across the country are still of major concern.
“While (child) obesity among the WIC age population has declined in recent years, they remain high with the national average still well, well above what it was just 25 years ago,” he said.
Rates of childhood obesity in general remain in the double digits for many states including Pennsylvania. According to 2015 data, the obesity rate among high school children in Pennsylvania was 14 percent.
Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a children’s advocacy group, found that 1 in 3 children of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties were obese or overweight. The information was released in 2014 as part of the group’s “Bottom Line is Children” reports.
Hamburg said patterns in policy changes are also starting to appear for school-age children. He said many schools are getting rid of vending machines or are including healthier options in those machines. Several schools are also beginning to remove the deep fryers and prepare meals using fresh and healthier ingredients, he said.
As for exercise, Hamburg said transportation policies are promoting bike paths and safe walking routes.
“There’s a whole national program through the Department of Transportation called Safe Routes to School which is just what it says. It’s providing safer option for kids to get to schools,” he said.
LOW-INCOME CHILDREN AT A HIGHER RISK FOR OBESITY
Hamburg said when it comes to the causes of childhood obesity, income is a big factor.
“Low-income households more commonly live in food insecure areas where healthy food is limited due to cost, proximity and other resources,” he said. “Fifty-one percent of U.S. public school students are from low-income families or eligible for free or reduced priced meals. So that’s a significant number of kids that are low-income.”
In October, Public Citizens for Children and Youth released reports that found more children in Suburban Southeast Pennsylvania counties are facing economic hardships than was true during the recession. The group’s “Left Out” series studied the poverty status of children in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware Counties. The Delaware County report was the first in the series to be released.
“An American tragedy is happening right before our eyes, yet it’s very hard to see. The headline news touts a strong economic recovery, and monthly jobs reports amplify that message. But PCCY (Public Citizens for Children and Youth) dug into the data and Delaware County found a very different and alarming story that does not bode well for children or the county,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, in a press release.
The “Left Out” series found the same to be true of Bucks, Chester and Montgomery Counties.
Hamburg said the WIC program and other federal programs are beginning to address the link between low-income families and obesity rates. He said the good news is that more states are starting to change policy to reflect the obesity epidemic but that there is still much to be done.